What is a "Moor"? This would seem to be an easy question to answer: a Muslim of North African ancestry. But the question has proved to be a contested and often divisive one among readers of Othello. The question turns on whether Shakespeare intended to work with the somewhat confused Elizabethan distinction between Moors and other Africans. One earlier critic wrote: "the descendents of the proud Arabs, who had borne sovereign sway in Europe, and, what is more, had filled an age of comparative darkness with the light of their poetry and their science, were confounded with the uncivilized African, the despised slave." The critic proceeds to insist that Othello is one of the former. Indeed, this seemingly factual question has often been decided by suspiciously motivated answers. As Stephen Greenblatt has pointed out, those critics who have found Othello to be a noble hero are all too often the same ones who declare that he is a pale-skinned Arab, while those who think his actions are beastly are also those who insist that he is a black African.
Moreover, this apparently fine distinction is often a guise for a cruder question: what color is Othello's skin? Some readers have gone to great lengths to insist that "black" is applied to Othello metaphorically; it describes, they claim, the state of his soul, not the hue of his face. This question has proved particularly prominent, of course, in performance. For several centuries, Othello was played by white actors wearing black-face. The great actor Edmund Kean, with the scholarly support of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, insisted that Othello had skin no darker than a Spaniard, and favored light-brown make-up when playing the part. In contemporary American productions, Othello is generally played by African-American actors, but there are prominent exceptions: Orson Welles, in his film version of the play, cast himself as Othello and wore the pale make-up that Kean had demanded centuries before.
Clearly, there is more at stake here than the definition of "Moor" in Elizabethan English. Earlier critics have a tendency to follow, rather than to critique, the prejudices of Shakespeare's Venetians. One at times wants to throw up one's hands and insist that it does not matter what color Othello's skin is - what matters is the existential situation of being an outsider scorned by society's insiders. This is perhaps true, but it is disingenuous. For Shakespeare, with a world of materials before him, firmly insists on the Elizabethan category of "Moor" - any claim that Othello is not about Moors but about the "human condition" is belied by Shakespeare's insistent specificity on the issue of Othello's Moorishness, which seems to actually invite the historical and often political debate, which this play has provoked. Othello is undoubtedly a psychological drama, but it also demands, repeatedly, to be recognized as one enmeshed in the history of its time.
But we should be careful not to construe "the history of its time" too narrowly. Critics have insisted that it is inaccurate to have an actor of sub-Saharan ancestry play Othello, who is decidedly Northern African. To do so, these critics argue, is to read more recent political conflicts "back into" Shakespeare's tragedy. But such a criticism itself misreads history. Most significantly, when Othello was first written and performed, the African slave trade was just beginning to be known and practiced in London, and this too is part of the play's ancestry. So it ought not be surprising that some of the most successful productions have invoked memories of slavery in America, or apartheid in South Africa - for these too have their historical roots in the same soil as Shakespeare's play, though it is a darker aspect of Othello's history, one which many readers have preferred to lighten.
Material in the "Historical Context" and "Did You Know?" sections is drawn from Stephen Greenblatt's introduction to Othello in The Norton Shakespeare, as well as from Horace Howard Furness' edition of the play in his New Variorum series.
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Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Scenes 1.1 and 1.2
Scenes 2.1 and 2.2
Scenes 3.1 and 3.2
Scenes 4.2 and 4.3